Look, I was—and still am, for the most part—a new writer. I’m not trying to say that being green here is a bad thing, because it’s not. It’s a time of huge growth and it can be one of the most exciting parts of being a writer, because everything is so shiny and fascinating. But I made a lot of mistakes as a new writer, some of them good and some of them bad, and I’d like to offer this post as a cheat sheet for everyone in my place.
Thinking your first piece is going to be an instant bestseller.
Nobody’s first draft—or first novel—is perfect. The chances of you getting one of those six-figure deals on your debut are pretty darn slim, and if you go into writing your novel thinking otherwise, it’s going to be a hard road to accepting the reality
But that’s not to say you shouldn’t still try. Because that first book leads to your second, and that second one leads to a third. And each book will be better than the one before it, because you’ve learned from others and from yourself. As cliché as it is, practice makes perfect, or as close to it as you’ll get.
Not having beta readers.
For a long time, I was too scared to show anyone my work, because I’d been scared into believing that sharing it might mean someone would steal it. The truth is, if I’d just let someone else read it, I probably wouldn’t have spent so long editing it. Instead, my query letter rejections were my feedback, and that probably burned a lot of bridges.
Feeling bitter at others’ successes.
I’ve written about learning how to deal with bitterness as a writer before. It’s something I still struggle with a little. But feeling bitter does nothing for you. While you’re stewing about how you deserve a book deal more than someone else, you know what you’re not doing? Writing. Holding grudges wastes a huge amount of time. It’s not going to get you to where you want to be. The only thing that will is hard work.
The truth is, traditional publishing is fickle, and some of the factors that go into it have nothing to do with the quality of your work. Most of those “overnight successes” are actually several years in the making. Even once you get an agent, it can take months or years to land a deal with an editor, and the average turnaround from deal to publishing is usually at least a year minimum.
Not putting in the research.
Seriously. Do your research. Few things stand out more than poor research in a novel, whether that be location scouting, character profiling, or just plain ol’ scenario research. This isn’t to say that someone won’t still complain about inaccuracies if your book gets published, but it helps a little. If you’re writing a book with any type of action scenes, research injuries and weapons and watch a few classic fight scenes from movies. If you’re writing a historical piece, research the time, titles, decorum, etc. If your story is set in a different location, research the climate, dialect/slang, local laws, and use Google Streetview if possible. Seriously. It’ll make your story so much better.
Piling on the sad backstory.
The backstory is an essential part of any good story. But you’ll notice that a lot of famous characters have the same kind of backstory: a tragic one. Batman. Harry Potter. Lisbeth Salander.
But sometimes people overdo it. The main character’s mother died, and her abusive father took it out on her. She’s bullied by all the populars at school. A beautiful boy saves her and takes her in… only for her father to come back and assault her. Boom, she’s pregnant. It’s a storyline that’s problematic for a lot of reasons that I don’t have time to get into, but it’s also one I’ve seen variations of several different times, especially in online writing.
I did something a little similar with my first novel. My main character lost her parents in a car accident and then went to live with her grandma. Then one of her best friends commits suicide, her other friends desert her, and she develops an eating disorder. Then she relapses after she finds her new best friend’s sister unconscious (also with an eating disorder). It was a lot, and when I cut a lot of that out—including the friends subplot and the new best friend’s sister subplot—my story was a lot better. Which brings me to my next point:
Assuming you know better than others.
The reason I kept those subplots in my novel for so long even though people told me they were too much was that they were personal to me. I’d gone through similar things in my own life, and because I viewed this story as my catharsis, it blinded me. So I kept the subplots in, even though they were weighing my story down. I didn’t listen until a literary agent told me my story was too messy.
Don’t be that person who rejects advice because they think they know better. Sure, sometimes you actually will know better; it is your story, after all. But don’t just ignore criticism. A lot of the time, you’re blind to the mistakes in your own story because—like me—it’s personal to you. Take what people have to say into consideration. It’s up to you whether you follow up on it.
What mistakes did you make when you started writing?